Thursday, 30 July 2015

The duty, and joy, of welcome

"Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution"
Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, Article 14

It is conflicting emotions and experiences this week that have compelled me to sit down and try to draw together into a blog post the numerous strands of thought which are currently floating around my brain. It risks being both much too long and somewhat confused, but hopefully a few vaguely coherent thoughts will be discernible somewhere within it.

I have the pleasure of spending most of this week in St Chad’s Sanctuary, a place regular readers of this blog will know is very dear to my heart. It is summer school this week, when our students are invited to spend the week participating in a variety of activities and it is certainly no sacrifice to dedicate a week of my school holidays to spending time with them.

There have been any number of highlights, among which:

·      The week began on a high as I invited 12 students from 7 different countries with varying levels of English to explore life and identity in a poetry writing workshop (there may be another post to follow with some of the results of that one). As well as serving as a testament to their engagement and enthusiasm for learning, some profound ideas were shared, even with very few words.

·      Playing football with a group of young men certainly both fitter and more talented than me, but who were determined to include me and who, along with their energy and enthusiasm, exhibited a sportsmanship and concern for one another from which the premiership players have much to learn.

·      Tuesday was our annual “school trip” which this year took us to a National Trust property outside Birmingham. There were exclamations of pleasure over fresh air and views of the countryside. There were discussions in the vegetable gardens about memories of farms back home. There was sharing and conversation and games and music and laughter.

·      Taking a group to the library where, with lots of support, two ladies with virtually no English were able to become members of the library and were clearly delighted to take away dual language picture books to improve their English.

·      There is more still to come and I am really looking forward to this afternoon's end of year barbecue and celebration event and to seeing my students collect their certificates, well-deserved after a year of hard work.

Meanwhile every day the media swirls with stories of the desperation of those still trying to seek sanctuary on our shores. Except often, it is not that desperation which dominates the headlines: it is the inconvenience of traffic jams, the determination to build a better barrier, the complaints that the French aren’t doing enough, the myths and contortions that are allowed to shape our understanding of a complicated situation. Myths that mean it is acceptable to "blame the migrants" for social strains which clearly would be more appropriately blamed on the ever-increasing concentration of our nation's wealth in the hands of the privileged few.

I know we have, as a nation, a long history of blaming the French, always an easy target as the butt of our jokes, but while their failure to stop migrants reaching the UK is oft cited, it is rarely mentioned that the French received more than twice as many asylum claims as us last year and rank above us (but below Germany, Sweden and Italy) among European countries welcoming the highest numbers of refugees. All of these pale into insignificance compared to the countries which welcome the most displaced people, all of which are in the Middle-East, Asia and Africa (with Turkey taking the top spot in 2014). It is by no means true that “they all want to come here.”

Actually, Britain hosts less that 1% of the world’s refugees. At a time when increased conflict and the ravages of climate change are creating the greatest refugee crisis since the second world war, that is a shocking, and to my mind shameful statistic.

Among yesterday's headlines was the news that one young man died, the ninth so far this year to die on that stage of the journey: to be added to the hundreds who have died in the Mediterranean, and the deaths in the Sahara of which no-one even keeps count. The news coverage spoke dispassionately of the death of a “migrant” or “Sudanese male”. ... but he was, first and foremost, surely, a human being. A son and probable a brother, perhaps a husband and maybe a father. Unnamed, unknown, forgotten. I wonder how different the headlines would have been if he had been a young white British man instead. 

David Cameron’s response was to express concern ... which might have been encouraging: except his concern was neither for this young man who lost his life, nor his family or friends who may never know of his fate, nor even the others so desperate they continue to take this same risk. No his concern was for British holiday makers facing delays to their journeys ... where, oh where did we go so far wrong?

And then this morning I was further enraged by another news headline, in which Cameron declares: “Britain is no safe haven” And somehow that is supposed to be a good thing? Taking a hard line as we turn away those fleeing desperate situations we neither want to nor are able to imagine is something of which we should be proud?

I have met some of these people.

Many of the students I teach at St Chad’s entered Britain this way. They risked their lives crossing conflict zones, the Sahara, the Mediterranean. They left behind families, friends and familiarity. They came because they had no other choice. They came because they had experienced poverty and hunger, violence and torture, corruption, destruction and fear. They came because they hoped to find a place of safety. They came, too, to give their gifts and talents and time and love to a place they believed would make them welcome. They came to participate and contribute as much as to receive and to be appreciative of things which, by an accident of birth, we completely take for granted.  They came with hopes and dreams and aspirations. They came as human beings. 

My life is infinitely richer for knowing them.

That young man who died, had he not done, might have been one of those who I encouraged, in faltering English, to express something of his deepest desires in a poem. He might have been one of those who asked others to slow down so that “Teacher” could have a kick of the ball. One of those who, looking at a vegetable garden, shared stories about farming back home. One of those whose face would have been wreathed in smiles receiving a very simple certificate recognising an effort made.

For many of those who make it, Britain does, eventually, recognise its responsibility under international law. 87% of Eritreans who claim asylum here have their claim accepted. That is little consolation for those who died on the way. There is nothing “bogus” or “illegal” about these people. They have a genuine and legitimate fear which drives them away from a desperate situation and brings them through unimaginable trials to our shores. It is our responsibility and should be our joy to offer them new opportunities in a place of safety.

Amidst all the talk of bigger fences and better policing, there is a different solution to the delays for the holiday makers that David Cameron is so concerned about. There are alternative ways to respond to this crisis that are rarely suggested in the media or political discourse. 

We could, if we chose to, live up to our claim to be a “civilised nation”, live up to our desire to preach freedom and democracy to the world. As a nation we are richer than we have ever been. We do not have to spend our money on fences and security. If we provided safe routes for those fleeing war, famine, persecution, corruption, violence, poverty, and climate change, then perhaps they would not need to risk life and limb (and traffic delays) seeking the safety, we, and others promised we would afford them in the Refugee Convention of 1951. 

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